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Eve's Review

Industrial Food Production and the Pandemic

"Dead Epidemiologists, On the Origins of COVID-19"

Rob Wallace

Monthly Review Press, 265 pages




Eve Ottenberg

Covid-19 comes from the primary forest, from bat caves. In a world without industrial agriculture encroaching on that forest, in a world without the corporatization of a wild-food industry, Covid-19 would probably never have left those caves. The pandemic was not caused by small-holder agriculture, and the virus probably did not escape from a lab. As it becomes endemic, it may become unstoppable. But not so the next pestilence. If we revamp our food production system now, maybe the pathogens lurking in primeval forest viral reservoirs will stay there, instead of hopping onto planes to London, New York, Beijing, Moscow and other metropolises.


A new book by Rob Wallace, "Dead Epidemiologists," argues just that. According to Wallace, industrial agriculture pushes "capitalized wild foods deeper into the last of the primary landscape, dredging out a wider variety of potentially protopandemic pathogens." And that's only half the story. The other half traces the threat of avian and swine flus posed by factory farms and their peculiarly unethical forms of monoculture. Wallace focuses on how those monocultures remove immune firebreaks.


This book argues that in addition, factory farms may force "corporatized wild food companies to trawl deeper into the forest," getting new pathogens, "while reducing the kind of environmental complexity with which the forest disrupts transmission chains." So several threats: factory farms themselves; the push into forests for wild foods picks up new pathogens; that push also disrupts a web of life that kept those pathogens in check. And that's before Wallace even touches on the broader topic of industrial crop farming and its planetary destruction.


"Dead Epidemiologists" thus links novel viruses to agribusiness and deforestation, which release them, causing them to spill "over into local livestock and human communities." He cites this happening with Ebola, Zika, Makona, the coronaviruses, yellow fever, avian influenzas and African swine fever, for starters. Many of these "previously held in check by long-evolved forest ecologies are being sprung free, threatening the whole world." For agribusiness, however, "a virus that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk," a cost of doing business paid not by that business, but by humanity at large, aka an externality. The food industry is only too happy to socialize this cost onto the rest of us, to infect and kill millions of people, as it rakes in its privatized profits.


Wallace's solutions include ending monoculture by introducing livestock and crop varieties, and rewilding, as has been done somewhat with buffalo in the American west. That's long-term. In the shorter term, he denounces herd immunity based on letting covid run rampant as "let's do maximum damage," and describes how the staggering U.S. failures to cope with this plague were "programmed decades ago as the shared commons of public health were simultaneously neglected and monetized." Instead of Malthusian herd immunity, "we need to nationalize hospitals, as the Spanish did. We need to supercharge testing…as Senegal has. We need to socialize pharmaceuticals." And I would add, where there are lockdowns, the government should subsidize idled workers and small businesspeople. All of this, of course, is anathema to the Trump regime.


According to Wallace, 40 percent of our planet's ice-free surface is covered with its largest biome, agriculture, while 72 percent of animal biomass is poultry and livestock. He decries the "geologic scale" of industrial agriculture and how it geologically transforms "vast swaths of Earth's surface into solar factories, carbon mines, and manure lagoons, an alien landscape hostile to most life forms outside the interest of capital, save a subset of suddenly opportunistic pathogen and pest stowaways." In short industrial, chemical agriculture takes up too much space, is killing the planet and will ultimately kill us, too.


Wallace observes that three Iowa watersheds, "home to 350,000 people…host the waste equivalent of Tokyo, New York City and Mexico City combined." This phenomenal pollution derives from our livestock and poultry cruelly crammed together in filthy, disease-ridden cages to produce protein for human consumption. When this factory farming produces diseases, standard operating procedure is to blame small holders; that's now part of the agriculture "industry's standard outbreak crisis management package." But of course, it's really the big industrial factory farms, with all their horrors of animal torture, that are to blame.


In this connection, however, Wallace argues convincingly against the extremes some may rush to – lab-grown meat and advocating global veganism. He cites the massive quantities of carbon burned to produce tiny portions of lab-grown meant, so massive as to outweigh any environmental benefit of vegetarianism based upon it. As for veganism, much of the world, the non-first world, is pastoral. People live with their animals and eat some of them. Imposing veganism on pastoral herders is ridiculous, a kind of colonial stupidity.


Instead, this book champions regenerative agriculture based on use value, not food produced as a commodity, and argues that such an approach is incompatible with capitalism. Small farms with variegated livestock and crops, worked by families are what's needed. Wallace advocates the peasant agriculture promoted by the organization, La Via Campesina, and for planning agriculture that self-regulates "in such a way that the deadliest pathogens are far less likely to emerge." He has little use for commercial pesticides and GMO crops. They simply destroy too much of the natural world; besides farming can proceed quite successfully without them.


Before covid, such plans were often dismissed as left-wing fantasy. Now they look like our last chance to save ourselves from collapsing ecosystems, novel, deadly plagues and a fatally warming planet. The official U.S. covid body count is over 226,000. Experts say it's closer to 300,000. It will probably go much higher. The disease, some medical scientists believe, will become endemic and may require a yearly vaccine, like the flu. That vaccine may only be 50 percent effective, like the flu vaccine. So people will be wearing masks for a long time. Better to be inoculated and masked and survive, than suffocate to death from a virus released from a remote bat cave by an out-of-control food production system. We can't bottle covid back up in its subterranean den, but we sure can prevent the next disease from escaping.

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How the U.S. Military Deformed Science


"The Tragedy of American Science"

Clifford Conner

Haymarket Books, 338 pages




Eve Ottenberg

Any discussion of American science includes, perforce, the military. Physics? Nuclear weapons. Biology? Germ warfare. Chemistry? Poison gas. While the wonders of science extend far beyond these blights, the military and its money have distorted scientific inquiry, to say the least. And where the Pentagon hasn't co-opted any given discipline, capitalism has swooped in.


Just compare the U.S. pharmaceutical industry to Cuba's. In the U.S. new drugs are designed solely with an eye to profitability and jacking up the price. The only drug currently approved in the U.S. to treat Covid-19, Remdesivir, costs thousands of dollars. Cuba uses its drugs to treat its covid patients much more cheaply. Similarly with lung cancer – Cuba long ago developed a vaccine, which it sells to foreigners, including desperate U.S. lung cancer victims, for a few hundred dollars. Here in the U.S., pharmaceutical companies won't even develop such a vaccine. They make too much money bankrupting cancer patients with the astronomical costs of chemotherapy. They don't want lung cancer to be easily cured.


"The river of the tragedy [of U.S. science] has two headwaters: corporatization and militarization," writes Clifford Conner in his new book, "The Tragedy of American Science." Conner covers the lies of nutrition science, beholden to Big Sugar and Big Food, the failure of the green revolution to alleviate hunger within the lethal framework of capitalist inequality, the dangers of GMOs, the tobacco industry's abuse of science, Big Pharma's murder of multitudes of Americans with opiods, environmental degradation and the climate crisis brought to us by fossil fuel capitalism, the lies of the nuclear power industry and the catastrophe of storing its radioactive waste, the conflicts of interest in the academic-industrial complex, the dreadful propagandistic power of think tanks, the fraudulent science of economics and more. But much of this book is devoted exclusively to the militarization of science, because it is here that the principles of free scientific inquiry in the public interest have been most thoroughly corrupted. Indeed, jettisoned.


"We must be thankful that most of the trillions of dollars in American military spending have been wasted," Conner observes. The world, he writes, would be better off if all military R&D funds had been flushed down the toilet. But some of that money achieved its goals. Conner considers the example of new, "small" nuclear weapons.


The development of W76-2 nuclear warheads has not made the world a safer place. Though less powerful than their many megaton predecessors, that is the problem. Conner quotes historian James Carroll: This warhead "isn't designed as a deterrent, it's designed to be used." The idea is to use it in regional wars, thus avoiding nuclear holocaust. But Carroll argues that firing off small nuclear weapons "would likely ignite an inevitable chain of nuclear escalation whose end point is barely imaginable." If the military scientists and engineers who birthed the W76-2 warhead claimed they were making the world safer, they lied.


Conner also clarifies that so-called "smart bombs" are in fact stupid, as anyone who has followed U.S. "precision" bombing in Iraq and Afghanistan knows. Nothing could be less precise. Those smart bombs have slaughtered countless civilians. Conner also dissects the work of scientists and engineers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He mentions DARPA's development of prohibitively expensive prosthetics, whose true purpose, despite public relations stunts, is not to improve injured vets' lives, but to create "humanoid limbs for war-fighting robots."


Any survey of the military's perversion of science would be incomplete without mention of the infamous Operation Paperclip – the CIA program that imported about 1600 Nazi scientists to the U.S., whitewashed their war criminal pasts and employed them in the military industrial complex. Operation Paperclip's legacy "includes ballistic missiles, sarin gas cluster bombs, and weaponized bubonic plague." The most notorious Operation Paperclip bigwig, of course, was Werner Von Braun, who headed NASA. Von Braun had been a high-ranking SS officer, "deeply complicit in the deaths of the thousands of slave laborers who were killed producing his V-2 rockets at the Dora-Nordhausen concentration camp." Other Nazi scientists illegally brought to the U.S. included Walter Dornberger, in charge of V-2 rocket production at Dora-Nordhausen, who became "America's mouthpiece for the urgent need to weaponize space." There was also Arthur Rudolph, whose office at Dora-Nordhausen "had a window that looked directly out onto the assembly line above which executed laborers were hanged to terrify the workforce." Another Nazi, Kurt Debus, became the first director of the Kennedy Space Center, Conner writes. And there were many execrable others – fascists who should have faced war crimes tribunals, instead of wealth and honors in America.


But then, this is the same U.S. government that conducted "at least 239 experiments in at least eight American cities from 1949 to 1969." In Operation Sea Spray, the U.S. navy in 1950 sprayed bacteria "into the air just off the coast of San Francisco, as the wind was blowing ashore." The pathogen Serratia marcescens can "cause a wide range of infectious diseases." A similar bacteriological experiment was carried out in the New York City subways in 1966 with bacillus globigii, later categorized as a pathogen. Conner also covers the "Megadeath Intellectuals," at the RAND corporation.


This book concludes with the present-day Trump regime's closure of the pandemic directorate right before the Covid-19 outbreak. Conner compares the nearly nonexistent U.S. public health infrastructure to Cuba's far more robust and successful one. U.S. public health failures are now on glaring display, for all the world to see. The powerful American empire, which has spent trillions on the science of death, cannot protect its own citizens from a microscopic virus. China can. South Korea can. So can New Zealand. But in the U.S., money flooded into diabolical methods of killing, while the public health system was systematically starved and dismantled since the Reagan regime. Conner's outline of this catastrophe for Americans clarifies that if ever there was a case to be made for switching our scientific priorities, Covid-19 is it. If ever there was a time to make this change, that time is now.


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